Lives of the fellows

Otto Herbert Wolff

b.10 January 1920 d.27 April 2010
CBE(1985) MRCS LRCP(1943) MB BChir Cantab(1943) MRCP(1948) DCH(1949) MD(1954) FRCP(1962) Hon FRCPCH(1996)

Otto Wolff was professor of child health and dean of the Institute of Child Health, London. He was born in Hamburg, into one of those prosperous, cultivated Jewish families who did so much to enhance Europe in the century before the Second World War. His father, Herbert Arnold Jacob Wolff, was a general practitioner who had been born in Manchester and had dual English and German nationality, while his mother, Anna Samson, was the daughter of a lawyer. Otto was educated in Hamburg and then, at the age of 16, was sent to school in London so he could follow his brother Heinz [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.599] to Cambridge to study medicine. A year later, the whole family moved to England. Otto completed his clinical studies at University College Hospital and then held house posts at St Olave’s Hospital, Bermondsey, London, during the Blitz.

From 1944 to 1947, he served in the RAMC, as a medical specialist, initially in North Africa, where he was in charge of a smallpox hospital.

Following his demobilisation, he decided to train in paediatrics. He was a resident medical officer and then a medical registrar at Birmingham Children’s Hospital under Sir Leonard Parsons [Munk’s Roll, IV, p.588]. He became a lecturer in paediatrics and child health, and subsequently a reader, at the University of Birmingham. During this period, he discovered a new disorder of fat metabolism – abetalipoproteinaemia – and helped develop special diets for babies with phenylketonuria (PKU), one of the more common metabolic disorders. In 1960 he co-authored a paper in The Lancet which described trisomy 18, the chromosome disorder that became known as ‘Edwards syndrome’ (Lancet 1960 Apr 9;1(7128):787-90).

In 1965 he was appointed as professorial head of the Institute of Child Health attached to Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, succeeding Sir Alan Moncrieff [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.343]. He made it his business to transform that institution from what was once described as a set of cottage hospitals sharing a building into a centre comparable to the world class children’s hospitals in Boston, Toronto and Melbourne, an achievement for which he has been given little credit.

Wolff became president of the British Paediatric Association in 1976. While president he argued the case for developing a separate college of paediatrics, and was disappointed when the Association turned down his proposals. He was delighted when the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health was finally established in 1996.

He received many honours, including the Dawson Williams memorial prize of the British Medical Association (in 1984) and the James Spence medal of the British Paediatric Association (in 1988). He was made a CBE in 1985.

Physically Wolff was tall and even gangling; resembling what one imagines the French novelist Proust must have looked like. He was far from being a formidable ‘Herr Professor’ in the German style, but instead derived his authority from his intellect, his lack of personal ambition, his sweet nature and his implicit moral convictions. These qualities were combined with endearing eccentricities such as refusing to stay in households that lacked a piano (he was a fine amateur pianist) and could not supply him with a plate of marmalade sandwiches to see him through the night. He was in fact very particular about where he stayed when away from home, seeking out hotels characterised by the discreet luxury that appealed to him. He was not at all disposed to ‘roughing it’.

Wolff was not a practising Jew and was very happily married to Jill Freeborough, an Anglican English woman who predeceased him by some years. A former microbiologist at the Whittington Hospital, in retirement she created little gardens in every bit of spare ground within walking distance of their north London home. They had a son and a daughter.

John H Davis

[The Daily Telegraph 20 May 2010 – accessed 10 August 2010; Herald Scotland 28 May 2010 – accessed 10 August 2010; UCL School of Life and Medical Sciences Obituary – Professor Otto Wolff, CBE (1920-2010) – accessed 10 August 2010]

(Volume XII, page web)

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